WARNING: This post is full of spoilers for the entire series. Also, this is a personal post.
In episode 18 of Zetsuen no Tempest, our protagonist Yoshino admits for the first time that he is in grief.
His girlfriend is dead. The world is on the brink of destruction. The time is out of joint. Yet thus far Yoshino acted as if everything did make sense, that it could all be explained and rationalised in a logical manner. The only thing that did not make sense was his own grief. Because grief won’t bring Aika back, Yoshino told himself that his emotions were irrelevant.
On retrospect, the moment when Yoshino stops lying to himself was one of the standout scenes of Zetsuen no Tempest. Even years later, having forgotten most of the finer details of the plot, this scene sticks with me. In fact, the catharsis has only become stronger over time.
When Zetsuen no Tempest first aired, many viewers found its stylistic choices off-putting. The main characters kept quoting Shakespeare instead of having actual conversations, and they didn’t really show much emotion either, especially considering the sheer enormity of what was happening around them. But as soon as I began to interpret their actions as an elaborate self-defence mechanism, not only did their behaviour make sense, it also started to resonate with me deeply. The phrase 不合理な世界 (fugouri na sekai, lit. “illogical world”) comes up a few times in this series, and it perfectly encapsulates the setting and theme of the story.
When a person is confronted with an illogical world, there are two broad options available to them. They can call the world illogical and rage at its injustice, or they can rationalise it and build a system of logic around it. Logical thinking is a major theme in Zetsuen no Tempest. Infamously, the show dedicated around four entire episodes to a single scene where the characters stand around a tree arguing about how the magic system works. The point is not really about whether the magic system is coherent or plausible, but how the characters choose to make sense of it. An illogical world becomes logical through the powers of human reasoning.
While I would not describe the fantasy/action elements of this series as “figments of Yoshino’s imagination” or in some other kind of metaphysical term, Zetsuen no Tempest is a very introspective narrative at heart. The grandiose plot and fantastical happenings serve as a kind of elaborate framing of the world as our grief-stricken hero sees it. The series is full of sweeping backgrounds and set pieces depicting the world “out of joint”. The urban setting is very much like our own, but at the same time wholly unrecognisable. Aika’s death changed the shape of the world itself.
One year ago to this day, my aunt died of cancer.
No one saw it coming. She had been ill for quite some time, but her GP had assured her that she would get better soon. My aunt lived in rural Victoria, where access to specialised health care is limited. By the time she was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with late-stage cancer, it was far, far too late. She was dead before the month was over.
My aunt was one of my closest relatives. In many ways, I was closer to her than I was to my own mother. During my school holidays, I would stay at her house and help out at her antique shop. She was passionate about books, and she helped foster my lifelong love of literature. Before she died, she told me that I could take whatever I liked out of her enormous book collection. Out of her nephews and nieces, she made no secret of the fact that I was her favourite.
As you can imagine, it was deeply upsetting to lose someone I considered a friend and surrogate mother. I also knew that her cancer could have been controlled if the medical system had not failed her so badly. But at the time, I did not respond with much grief or anger. In fact, her death was very easy to rationalise. Cancer is so common, after all. And besides, my aunt was a heavy smoker.
“Death is a fact of life,” I thought. “There’s no point wallowing over it. It’s not going to achieve anything.”
I suppose you could say I’m the kind of person who suppresses negative emotions. I often tell myself that I don’t have the right to be angry or sad about my insignificant first-world problems. And if I ever do feel down about something, my first impulse is to shut myself away from other people so that they don’t have to put up with my negativity. I only tend to express my negative thoughts to other people after I have intellectualised my emotions.
I know that this is not the right thing to do, but pointless negativity is something I go out of my way to avoid. If I don’t have something constructive to say, I won’t say it.
In that regard, I feel that I have a lot in common with Yoshino. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a lover, but I think I can understand how Yoshino chose to think about Aika’s death.
I’m not just talking about my sadness here. I also experienced a very real sense of anger, not only at my aunt’s doctor but also at my own relatives. Actually, most of my anger is directed at my family.
During that terrible month as we waited for my aunt to pass away, my father and I visited her almost every day. On the day she died, my brother was supposed to come along too, but he ended up delaying us for a few hours because he had some personal business to do. Just as we were finally about to leave home, we got a call saying that my aunt was gone. We were too late to see her that final time.
I have never forgiven my brother for that.
Other relatives of mine showed some very unpleasant sides of themselves while my aunt lay on her deathbed. I don’t want to get into it all here, but I will say that greed is a very ugly thing. You get a stark view of humanity when someone dies.
As a result of these events, I think I was only able to hold onto my faith in humanity by lying to myself.
I’m still trying to come to terms with my bitter emotions. I’ve held it all in because I know that lashing out at others won’t help anyone. But how am I supposed to deal with this illogical world?
It feels to me that Yoshino’s breakdown is the real climax of Zetsuen no Tempest. Everything that comes afterward feels like closure. When Hakaze goes back into the past to find out how Aika died, it’s like the scene at the end of a mystery novel where the detective reveals how the killer pulled off their trick. And really, that whole “saving the world” subplot came off as an afterthought in the scheme of things.
I experienced my own breakdown last Christmas. You see, the whole family got together to spend the Christmas of 2014 at my aunt’s house. In 2015, barely anyone showed up. Those who who did spent most of the time drinking alcohol, trying desperately not to mention the ghost in the room. I could feel my aunt’s presence stifling me. When I recalled our happy Christmas together the year before, I could see her smiling at me in my mind’s eye, but her smile was also strained, as if she was trying her hardest not to show anyone her pain. Even then, she was probably well past the point of no return.
If only I had known…
A brutal wave of self-hatred came over me then, because looking back I could see all the signs as clear as day. Why did I keep assuming she would simply get better? Why was I too absorbed with my own life to notice how deeply she was suffering? Why was I so fucking selfish?
At the time, I was trying to comfort my grandmother, who surely must have experienced a much greater sense of loss than I did, but the next thing I knew I was crying as if my heart was absolutely shattered. I cried for what felt like a very long time.
It was good to cry, even though I felt so very empty afterwards. At the same time, I could sense that it was necessary and that I had admitted something important to myself.
I wouldn’t say that things are exactly “good” now. But they’re getting better. And plus, Zetsuen no Tempest makes more sense to me, so that’s a positive.
To me, Zetsuen no Tempest is a story about the struggle of two young men to cope with their loss and understand this illogical world. Underneath all that melodramatic wrapping, there’s a deeply human core. It’s a tragedy, and also a comedy. It has a happy ending.
I hope that more people will come to appreciate it too one day.